Brussels, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Slovakia today became the first second-wave candidate country to conclusively catch up with the front-runners in European Union accession talks.
After today's round of enlargement talks in Brussels, Slovakia had opened talks on all 29 currently negotiable "chapters" of EU regulations. It has closed negotiations on 19 of the grand total of 31 chapters. (Two chapters -- "Institutions" and "Miscellaneous" -- will only be opened once negotiations on the rest are concluded.)
This now puts Slovakia level with first-wave countries Estonia and the Czech Republic, and well ahead of Poland, which has closed talks on only 16 chapters. All three started talks in 1998, two years before Slovakia, whose first round of negotiations took place 15 months ago (March 2000).
Slovakia's chief negotiator, Jan Figel, said today this meant Slovakia stood a very good chance of joining the EU together with three Central European neighbors -- Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland -- in 2004.
"[This] result of Slovakia confirms that we have achieved the level where we can be compared with the others -- Slovakia has 29 open chapters, plus we can be taken as a country [in] the center of Central Europe."
Significantly, Slovakia today closed talks on the controversial chapters of "free movement of persons" and "free movement of capital," becoming only the second candidate after overall leader Hungary to do so.
Both Hungary and Slovakia have accepted a deal that allows certain EU countries to keep East European workers out of their labor markets for up to seven years. In exchange, they have won the right to impose reciprocal measures against any such EU nations, as well as the right to close their borders to workers from other new member countries if their influx becomes a problem for their domestic labor markets.
This so-called "safeguard clause" is intended primarily to avoid a situation where Polish workers, banned from neighboring Germany, could flood the labor markets of the rest of its Central European neighbors.
Both Hungary and Slovakia have also won concessions in the "free movement of capital" chapter, allowing them to delay land sales to foreigners for up to seven years after accession.
Slovakia's progress is closely followed by those of Lithuania and Latvia. Lithuania has now closed 18 chapters. Latvia, with 17 chapters closed, has the extra advantage of having also wrapped up talks on free movement of persons.
Stockholm's ambassador to the EU, Gunnar Lund, today summed up the last round of accession talks under the outgoing Swedish EU presidency. He rejected criticism that the second wave was able to catch up because insufficient effort was made to keep the front-runners going.
That claim is privately made by diplomats of a number of leading candidates -- with the exception of Hungary, which alone managed to maintain its previous progress rate.
Lund said the merging of the two waves of candidates was entirely due to the efforts made by the most advanced latecomers.
"It goes to show that a number of countries that started late have made enormous efforts to catch up [with the front-runners]. It was established in the Helsinki [summit] decisions [in December 1999 that] the principle of differentiation should apply and that this catch-up possibility should be real. And it is real, it's obvious. And it is a matter [for] individual candidate countries to take advantage of that possibility."
Lund singled out first-wave Poland for particular criticism, saying Warsaw was "slipping behind." Lund allowed that the number of closed negotiating chapters was not a foolproof measure of real progress, but he said it did offer a useful indication of how far a candidate has moved on the road toward incorporating EU regulations.